The battle over alcohol pricing

Saskatchewan prairie Saskatchewan started using minimum pricing in 2003

Saskatchewan is a long way from the British boozer and the aisles of High Street supermarkets.

But the experience of the Canadian prairie province could have a defining impact on our society.

The region, home to just over one million people, is one of the few places in the world to have first-hand experience of minimum pricing for alcohol.

And as such it is forming one of the key pieces of evidence as ministers weigh up whether to push ahead with what would be a controversial policy.

In England and Wales the consultation on a 45p minimum unit price finishes next week. In Scotland a 50p price has been put forward.

Evidence from Saskatchewan, which has a slightly different policy as there are different minimum prices for different types of drinks, has shown that a 10% rise in price leads to an 8% fall in alcohol consumption.

The findings are backed by Sheffield University experts who have been asked by ministers to analyse what effect a minimum price would have here.

Their work suggests the 45p proposals could cut consumption by 2.4%, which after 10 years would result in 10,000 fewer deaths and more than 300,000 fewer hospital admissions.

But of course it is not an exact science with the researchers admitting they can only give "best estimates".

Predicting behavioural change is notoriously difficult, doubly so when the intervention is aimed at something such as drinking that the public are clearly so attached to.

Unlike smoking where the government can simply say it is bad for you, the message for alcohol has to be much more nuanced as there is no evidence that drinking within recommended levels is harmful and some research has even suggested it may be beneficial to health.


And this has allowed industry, which unsurprisingly is against the introduction of a minimum price, to claim it is sticking up for Joe Public at a time when household budgets are already stretched.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association launched a campaign this week called "Why should responsible drinkers pay more?"


Miles Beale, the group's chief executive, is clear he thinks the government is making a mistake.

"Evidence shows that there is no simple link between alcohol price and harm and we do not believe that increasing the price of alcohol will effectively tackle problem drinking."

The campaign is also highlighting the fact that alcohol consumption is on the way down in the UK - dropping by 13% since 2004.

That is true, but those who support a minimum price believe drinking rates need to be seen in a much wider context.

While the last few years has seen alcohol consumption tail off, the current figure is still 40% higher than it was 40 years ago.

Where we are drinking has also changed dramatically.

In the early 1970s, 90% of alcohol was consumed in pubs and restaurants, but these days the rise in the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets means the split between drinking in and out of home is now almost 50:50.

But to many the clinching factor in support of a minimum price is that the evidence suggests it will hit the problem drinkers the hardest.

As hazardous drinkers are more likely to drink to excess and buy the cheaper alcohol, it is estimated a minimum price would cost them nearly £130 a year compared to just under £7 a year for the moderate drinker, according to the Sheffield University figures.

Dr James Nicholls, of Alcohol Research UK, believes the case for change is "compelling".

In fact, he - like many health campaigners - suggests England and Wales should consider going further and match the 50p put forward in Scotland.

"That is the price at which you begin to affect wine. It would have a much bigger impact."

Ministers certainly have much to consider.

Nick Triggle Article written by Nick Triggle Nick Triggle Health correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Realistically it has nothing to do with health and safety. Its another ploy to raise money for a bankrupt government so we can keep our troops overseas killing people.

    If they were really concerned about the health of the population why don’t they just ban it? O they can’t because it would cost the government billions.

    Money comes first every time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    "... could have a defining impact on our society." Less hyperbole please.

    "... a 10% rise in price leads to an 8% fall in alcohol consumption." Assumption of cause and effect, not very scientific. The various studies in Saskatchewan have carefully avoided stating cause and effect, just mention that there is probably some form of association.

    Come on Mr Triggle, you're not working for a tabloid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Minimum pricing just puts money in the pockets of the supermarkets.
    Why are different forms of alcohol taxed differently? It's daft.
    Tax all alcohol at the same rate of 35 -40p per unit and the money pays the national debt and the supermarkets make a loss if they discount it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    76.Trout Mask Replica
    "... society has a duty to mitigate those affects"
    By force if necessary!
    Make a homebrew beer and sell it too cheap, we'll send men around with guns to lock you up!

    Free choice be damned, for your own good!

    U can't police homebrew. That's the point. It's a stupid law.
    I say "poor", because they'll be the 1's affected most.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.


    not that I worry about disagreements or rebukes from unseen bloggers: that's not my position, hence my comment at no.46. apologies for the irony.


    not avoiding your question, home-brewing is not in the news article & I assumed it was rhetorical. OK, home brew, how do they price if you vary the alcohol level?

    Still using the "poor" just to oppose any possible alcohol tax?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    This will be a criminals charter. Already areas in the UK where legal sales have been driven out by illicit suppliers. The profits fwill 3X or 4X. Like rolling tobacco the public will buy from them. The rest will go to home brewing or distilling. This is a health, financial & legal disaster on a par with prohibition in the US. Falls in sales are not falls in consumption, but change in supply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    If reducing anti-social or alcohol related issues is the goal:
    Why not ban alcohol? or
    Why not have a camera in every house?
    Why not?

    We have criminal laws against violence, compensation available to victims etc. But by having an NHS we encourage the reckless excesses we seek to reduce by subsidising the bill for their consequences, instead of forcing the excessive drinker to pay

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    It would not cost moderate drinkers £7 a year. Inow drink table wine at £3.59 a bottle. An increase to the proposed minimum of 45p would cost me over £100 a year for 21 units a week. Why not think a little rather than paste in press releases?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    'a 10% rise in price leads to an 8% fall in alcohol consumption'. Is this true or did it actually result in an 8% fall in alcohol sales? I'd be interested to see sales figures in the area for home brew equipment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Min pricing will hurt the poor,..If they drink to excess, it's their free choice."

    This then leads to anti-social behaviour both theirs and their children, health problems (ditto), poor achievement and inability to contribute to society. We all know that perverse incentives of rich and poor alike adversely affect society (and the economy) and society has a duty to mitigate those affects

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    You're qualifying your position & avoiding my question:
    "Would you impose a min price on even cheaper to make homebrew"?

    Both parties pass laws to "improve, shape, encourage" us in what the feel is a good society. Free will be damned! The amount of corruption in their offices should automatically disqualify them from telling any person how to live their life freely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    66. Bastiat to 63.chinkinthearmour
    I have no qualms with other people's choices, even bad ones, as long as they don't affect me. If I'm not harmed by it

    So as long as YOU'RE okay everything is fine and dandy,huh? ha!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I noted that many of the parents in my area complained that their 6th form/uni kids were "pre-leashing" on cheap supermarket booze & then heading out to the clubs. Cheap booze is a problem across the country (I'm in leafy home counties). Read the article were drinking 40% more than 40 years ago & the impact will be greater on problem drinkers. Whats wrong with that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    How many adults whinge about the demise of the town centre, but invest in a telly and expensive ornaments instead of going into town at night to bias the demographics away from an alcohol-fuelled kindergarten?

    We don't need more tax, we need less neglect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.


    So definitions are being established: other people's choices, don't affect me, live with consequences, impose my will...

    The analysis comes down to minimum pricing affecting YOU, doesn't it?

    I have no problem with that, I share the same objective.

    Just don't use the "poor" as an excuse or a means to your end.

    Labour has been using that for decades and the hypocrisy is sickening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    In the last 30-40 years we have become a nanny state,Thatcher destroyed whole regions of theUK consigning generations to welfare,opening our borders to any one who wants to join her planned under class,this is why a large minority of people need/expect to be told what to do,to be coddled,rights no responsibilities,this abhor ant social experiment needs to be reversed,NOW.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Even 50p per unit minimum price/unit will not affect most of us to be fair-it works out at around £5 for a bottle of wine.
    Super-strength lagers and ciders are sold with only one market in mind-the market that buys as much alcohol for as little money as they can.
    This market , I would suggest, is the one most likely to have a negative and costly effect on society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Is alcohol an essential?


  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Yes, lack of regulation has put the UK at the pinnacle of the financial ladder - Banking Industry? Oh! the "highly regulated" (sic) building industry. Oh wait a minute!

    Yes, the UK is a shining example of financial stability.

    This is a country where children grow up in shoe box housing with no education. How laudable.

    Non regulation of alcohol is another symptom of a dysfunctional society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    I have no qualms with other people's choices, even bad ones, as long as they don't affect me. If I'm not harmed by it, you are free to drink gin till the cows come home. It's your choice, you live with the consequences. I am not here to impose my will on you like you are a child.

    Do you propose min pricing on (even cheaper) Homebrew beer too?


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